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Embrace the Impossible
As some of you may know, I'm also a filmmaker and film producer. I got into the industry because I've loved movies as long as I can remember, and a memorable part of my childhood was going to Blockbuster with my mom to stock up on rentals.
Out of naïveté, stupidity, or a combination of both, I signed up to do 48-hour film competitions the last two weekends. For the uninitiated, the premise of these events is that you are given a prompt Friday night and have until Sunday at 7:30pm to deliver a completed film.
Inevitably mistakes ran rampant, but I realized that something special happened when we were in the trenches: almost everyone on the crew was operating in a near flow state. We were up against the ropes, and we were so invested in the outcome that people were making decisions rapid-fire and operating at a high level of expertise.
According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow, a flow state is, “The state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. The experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost.” It is the state of high output, effortlessness, extreme performance. For anyone operating at a high level in a given field, they can likely describe achieving flow state on a number of occasions.
Csikszentmihalyi further describes flow as requiring 8 specific characteristics in order to occur:
- Complete concentration on the task;
- Clarity of goals and reward in mind and immediate feedback;
- Transformation of time (speeding up/slowing down);
- The experience is intrinsically rewarding;
- Effortlessness and ease;
- There is a balance between challenge and skills;
- Actions and awareness are merged, losing self-conscious rumination;
- There is a feeling of control over the task.
The two most important of these, in my opinion, is complete concentration on the task at hand and an adequate balance of challenge and skill. In order to experience flow, we must be so invested in the task and the outcome that nothing else matters. In our case, we had a set deadline and a large team of people depending on us to reach this deadline. It's hard to focus on anything else when you have such a pressing responsibility.
Additionally, flow requires the task at hand to be challenging enough to cause difficulty without being impossible. Too easy and we will blow through the task without issue. Too hard and we will run into a brick wall, unable to proceed. Much like Goldilocks, the ideal challenge is somewhere just right. In fact, pursuing a task that is ever so slightly outside of our ability level is the best way to experience flow. We bit off slightly more than we could chew both weekends, and the end result was two films that we were proud of.
In the monotony of daily life, it's important to challenge yourself in order to achieve peak performance. Taking on easy tasks frequently, or allowing yourself to be easily distracted, are surefire ways to avoid flow state. If you don't actively choose discomfort, you are leaving a lot on the table in terms of your overall performance.
The most interesting things I've encountered this week
What I'm reading: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
The original text on flow state that has been cited by countless books since. If you want to take a deep dive on performance and how to tap into your highest operating frequency, this book should serve as a great primer!
What I'm also reading: The Rise of Superman by Steven Kotler
I had this book recommended to me shortly after I originally encountered Flow. Kotler is another author obsessed with optimizing human performance. From the standpoint of flow states, The Rise of Superman does a great job exploring the subject deeper (especially with prominent athletes).
A good article on performance: "Six Ways to Develop a Growth Mindset" by Robert J Moore
Developing a growth mindset is a key component of evolving as a human being. We must believe that we are capable of more in order to live up to our potential. Two of my favorite things on this list revolve around making self-development a normal part of our routines and setting repetitive, daily and weekly goals.
Quote of the week:
Surfing at a high level requires complete focus and attention. Many activities that are part of our normal routine are things we can do on autopilot; in order to level up, you must push yourself to do things which require your complete and uninterrupted attention. Only then can we perform at our highest level.